THE art development of the human race is a fascinating study, and one that has long engaged the attention of some of our most profound philosophers. Whence springs the love of beauty, and the desire for its reproduction or imitation in the work of human hands? The answer seems obvious, whether it is regarded from a standpoint interior or exterior to man. If interior, man is a spiritual being with power to discern all beauty, and Nature, with her multiform manifestations of beauty, is but the complement of that spiritual nature, given to him to afford exercise for the faculties of his soul. On the other hand if the subject is regarded as exterior to man then the beauty of Nature must be regarded as the exterior objects that develop within him a love for the beautiful. Once a sunrise, a sunset, a flower, strikes man's inner vision and awakens a love for its rare appearance, he experiences the dawn of the art instinct, and its development is merely a question of time.
The instinct once aroused and development begun it becomes as natural to seek to imitate as it is to observe. The power of the artist transfixes the beauty of the moment and makes it a permanent joy. He ‘‘carries over’’ the glory of today into all the tomorrows. But it is essential that the artist be a good and faithful worshiper at the shrine of Nature. Morning, noon, evening, and through the silent watches of the night he must reverently remain at his post.
In the days of his dawning intelligence, living in free and unrestrained contact with Nature, his perceptive faculties were aroused and highly developed by the very struggle for existence. He was compelled to watch the animals, in order that he might avoid those that were dangerous and catch those that were good for food; to follow the flying birds that he might know when and where to trap them; the fishes as they spawned and hatched; the insects as they bored and burrowed; the plants and trees as they grew and budded, blossomed and seeded. He became familiar, not only with such simple things as the movements of the polar constellations and the retrograde and forward motions of the planets, but also with the less known spiral movements of the whirlwind as they took up the sand of the desert; and the zigzags of the lightning were burned into his consciousness and memory in the fierce storms that, again and again, in darkest night, swept over the exposed area in which he roamed. With the flying of the birds, the graceful movements of the snakes, the peculiar wrigglings of the insects, the tracks of insects, reptiles, birds, and animals, whether upon the sand, the snow, the mud, or more solid earth he soon became1
Here then, we have the origin of the art motifs of the aborigines. The North American Indians—the Amerinds, as Major J. W. Powell called them—became experts in several arts and crafts, chief of which were those of pottery, basketry, and blanket weaving. This book deals entirely with the latter.
While several tribes have engaged in rude and primitive weaving, the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico weaving their cotton garments exquisitely and artistically long prior to the coming of the Spaniards in 1540, it was left for the Navaho of our historic time to develop the art to a high degree, so that we find writers of note, and authorities, declaring that his is the best blanket in the world—neither Ottoman fingers nor British machines have ever produced its peer.
The Franciscan Fathers of St. Michaels, Arizona, than whom no one has studied the Navaho more, assert that the modern Navaho blanket is not one whit behind its predecessors of sixty or seventy years ago. They say, in addition: ‘‘The Navaho blanket is today the only thing of its kind in the world. No other people, white, red, black, brown, or yellow, turn out a textile fabric that can be placed beside it. It is true, Oriental rugs are woven in much richer patterns than the Navaho blanket, but, while the former bewilder the eye by their over-rich and over-crowded designs, the latter, by their very barbaric simplicity of design and well chosen colors, please and rest the eye at the same time.’’
Hence it will be seen that Navaho blanket-weaving is not ‘‘a lost art,’’ nor are the weavers a vanishing race. In these pages I shall show, and with a thousand blankets selected from those made this year it can be demonstrated, that as good blankets are being woven today by the Navahos as were ever fashioned in their history, and the fact that there are over thirty thousand of these Indians on their reservation in this year of grace 1914, where twenty years ago there were less than twenty thousand, is proof that they are not decreasing.
Yet the Indian—the Navaho, as well as all others—as an Indian, is rapidly disappearing from the land. He is slowly changing; not into a civilized being comparable with ourselves, but into a peculiar nondescript,
In the far-away dim ages of the past when the aboriginal man was seeking for some means of carrying in one receptacle the several articles of his hunting-craft—such as flint arrow-points, lance-heads, skinning knives, gut for his bow, sinew for his arrows, his fetich to make his hunting sure—and his wife desired a similar ‘‘hold-all’’ for her treasures, the basket was a necessity. The bird's nest, possibly, was the first suggestion of the basket, and bark, twigs, flexible roots, and fibre of shrubs and plants were woven together in rude imitation of the nest, and the art of basketry was born. Once created, imitation, experience, and rivalry soon developed the art until the Amerind became the greatest exponent of basket-making the world has ever known. Indeed, experts assert that there is not a known stitch now produced by the deft fingers of Parisian, London, Berlin, or Italian fingers, or warp and weft, no matter how cunning, sent forth to delight the eye from the most complicated weaving-machine of modern time that cannot be duplicated in the fragments of baskets, matting, and cloth exhumed from graves that were centuries old in this American land long before Columbus sailed from the harbor of Palos.
Is it not somewhat humbling to our haughty pride to know that these ‘‘savage, dirty, loathsome, filthy, disgusting’’ people—with a score other rude epithets which I have heard applied to them gave us the weaving art in such high perfection, and that we are indebted to them for all the useful, beautiful, and luxurious products of our modern looms?
Prior to 1892 the modern Navaho blanket was almost unknown. As I shall show in the chapter on the early history of the blanket, there were rare, fine, and wonderful blankets made early in the last century that today are the envy and desire of the collector, but it was not until after 1892 that the blanket began to be made on a large scale as a commercial article. Then came a rapid deterioration of the art that was as unnecessary as it was lamentable and regrettable, for it gave crude, thick, coarse, degraded specimens of blanketry to the world and thus worked the art long-time detriment and injury. But, like many another evil, it grew to such proportions that it became its own slayer. Out of the mere instinct of self-preservation the Indian trader sprang into the breach he himself had made and refused to buy the inferior specimens of the loom, for, as no one would buy them, they remained as dead and unprofitable stock on
During the past twenty years interest in the life of the North American aborigine has so increased that everything connected with him has taken on an added value. The collecting of Indian ‘‘curios’’ has passed through all the successive stages of the popular ‘‘fad,’’ and blankets, baskets, bead-work, pipes, drums, head-dresses, and many etceteras have each taken a more or less exalted place for a longer or shorter time in the public estimation. But to a comparatively limited few, who, however, are slowly but surely growing in number, there has come a true appreciation of the marvelous work of certain Indians along the lines of textile and basket weaving. Upon the latter subject I prepared a popular work some years ago,2(now in its sixth edition), which is largely used by those seeking further information in this fascinating branch of aboriginal industry. In the pages that follow I have endeavored to do for the art of blanket-weaving what that book sought to do for the art of basket-making. If thereby I shall bring to a larger circle of American and other students a more intimate knowledge of the Indian who weaves the blanket and a deeper sympathy with him in his life problems, I shall feel that my endeavors have been eminently successful.
It will be observed that I follow the Americanized and rational form of spelling the name Navaho. Why people should consent to use the misleading and unnecessary Spanish form of the name, Navajo, is beyond me. Every stranger to the Spanish tongue—and there are millions who are thus strange—naturally pronounces this Na-va-jo, and cannot be blamed. Yet it does give the One-who-knows the opportunity to laugh at him, and perhaps this is the reason the Spanish form is retained. Were the name one of Spanish origin we might be reconciled to that form of spelling, but as it is a name belonging to a tribe of Amerinds who were found here, and had been here for centuries when the Spaniards came, there is no reason whatever why they should have fixed upon them forever a European method of spelling their name.
For upwards of thirty years I have known the Navaho Indian. I wrote and published for the first Indian trader who made a specialty of the Navaho blanket the first blanket catalogue ever issued. I have carefully watched the various developments of the art, have bought many hundreds of blankets, know personally scores of the best weavers of the tribe, and as late as the winter of 1912-13 spent over three months visiting
In this, as in all my other books, I have cared less about being thought an original writer than of giving all possible information about the subject presented. Hence I have gleaned from every known and available source. As a rule these sources are stated, but if in any place I have failed to give the fullest possible credit it has been through inadvertence, and I hereby extend my apologies and acknowledgements and freely and fully express my obligations.
1. Indian Basketry, Chap.XII, p. 198.
2. Indian Basketry.